Time is on Israel’s side. A review of the balance of power between Israel and its foes; of the domestic features molding Israel’s national power; and of Israel’s standing in the international community, validates the assessment that Israel has the dominant hand for the foreseeable future.
This is the first article in a special series of studies by JISS experts to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary. The series examines Israel’s diplomatic and defense achievements in grand strategic perspective.
At 70, Israel stands strong, yet debates about its health persist. The radical Israeli Left seems most concerned about the country’s future, arguing that there is great urgency in solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; otherwise, Israel is doomed. The Left contends that Israel’s democratic character, its international legitimacy, and its ability to withstand protracted conflict all are threatened by the ongoing stalemate.
Indeed, Israel has faced existential threats from its neighbors since its establishment. And as a small state its existence is precarious. Moreover, Jews with a historical consciousness remember that a Jewish state was twice destroyed by powerful empires. So nothing can be taken for granted.
However, this article argues that time seems to be on Israel’s side. A review of the balance of power between Israel and its foes, and of the domestic features molding Israel’s national power (such as its economy, social cohesion and political system), and of Israel’s standing in the international community, validates the assessment that Israel has the dominant hand for the foreseeable future.
The National Security Arena
The balance of power between Israel and its neighbors is the critical variable in Israel’s quest for survival in a bad neighborhood. As long as the power differential between the Jewish State and its foes is growing, then Israel’s capacity to overcome regional security challenges is assured.
Israel has built a mighty military machine that has been successful in overcoming many military threats, benefiting from skilled and well-motivated manpower, as well as advanced weapons. The military victories have signaled to Israel’s foes that Israel cannot be destroyed by force. Its military superiority largely has contributed to the decline in the intensity of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The last large-scale conventional military encounter that involved aircraft and tanks was in 1982. Moreover, a peace process with Arab states has started, effectively lowering the chances of an Arab-Israeli large scale conventional war.
Since 1982, Israel has employed force primarily against armed organizations, such as Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist organizations, and Islamist militias, which use a combination of methods: terror, suicide bombings, and guerilla tactics. Israel also increasingly faces the use of missiles launched at its strategic assets and population centers. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak and terrorists are less dangerous than states, although the struggle against them often is costly in blood and treasure.
The capabilities of non-state organizations to harm Israel is amplified by the support they receive from nation states, such as Iran. For example, the arsenal of over 100,000 missiles in the hands of Hizballah poses a very serious challenge for Israel. The enemy strategy is to inflict pain on Israel and to test its resolve. Israel has established a multi-layered anti-missile system, but this is unlikely to provide foolproof defense.
Israel’s anti-missile systems are impressive. The Iron Dome batteries deployed to intercept missile threats of up to 70 kilometers registered an impressive record of 88 percent interception rate in Gaza encounters. The David’s Sling missile defense system for meeting threats of up to 300 kilometers is also operational. Israel also deployed Arrow-2 and Arrow-3 interceptors, designed to work against long-range missiles. The defensive perimeter established reflects the excellence of Israel’s military industries, an important component in Israel’s military superiority. But again, these systems cannot provide a full defense in view of the numbers of missiles arrayed against Israel.
Israel has also developed a nuclear option, buttressing its image of a strong state. Such weapons serve as a constant reminder that attempts to destroy the Jewish state could be extremely costly. They have a deterrent value primarily against hostile states.
In contrast, Israel’s rivals in the Arab world suffer from great weakness. Their stagnant societies still grapple with the challenge of modernity as the upheavals in the Arab world indicate. Their ability to militarily challenge the status quo is limited.
In short, over time Israel has become stronger, while its enemies, with the exception of Iran, have become increasingly weaker.
The only grave national security challenge in the region is a nuclear Iran. Such a development is not only a direct threat to Israel, but also could start a chain of nuclear proliferation, a change in the regional balance of power, and an Iranian takeover of the energy resources in the Gulf and Caspian Basin. While the world has become more attentive to Israel’s perspective on this matter, the international community, by supporting the July 2015 JCPOA, has failed to stop Iranian progress in the quest for a nuclear arsenal. It is quite possible that Israel may be left on its own in dealing with the Ayatollah’s nuclear aspirations. Fortunately, obstruction and perhaps even destruction of the Iranian nuclear program is not beyond the capabilities of Israel.
A Strong Economy
Military and economic power are related and reinforce each other. Israel’s edge over its Arab neighbors continues to grow also because of its economic prowess. Israel’s strong economy is a result of wise economic policies, stressing market values, and adapting to globalization. Israel is one of the most developed market economies with substantial, though diminishing, government participation. The main driver of the economy is the science and technology sector. Israel’s manufacturing and agriculture, despite limited natural resources, is highly developed and sophisticated.
In recognition of Israel’s economic achievements Israel was admitted in 2010 to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which brings together the 33 most developed countries that are committed to democracy and market economy.
After years of annual growth rates above 5 percent, the economic expansion has been slowing down. In 2016, the growth was 4 percent and in 2017 it was 3.4 percent. Yet, the long-term projection for 2020 is 4.1 percent. Israel also managed to reduce its debt/GDP ratio from 100 percent in 2002 to 74 percent in 2012 and to 61.9 percent in 2017. The forecast is continuous decline, while most of the world experiences a soaring ratio. Israel’s 2012 budget deficit and unemployment were 4.2 percent and 6.9 percent respectively. In 2016, the respective figures were 2.5 and just above 4 percent. These figures are much lower than the OECD average. Indeed, all international economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank commended Israel’s economic performance and expressed confidence in its long-term viability.
Israel is also an attractive site for overseas investors, particularly in the high-tech area. Scores of major US manufacturers, including General Electric, General Motors, Microsoft, IBM, Google, Apple and others, have R&D centers in Israel. Some 300 US high-tech companies have R&D presence in Israel, and many overseas entrepreneurs invest in and/or acquire Israeli high-tech companies. Israel is a global leader of microchip design, network algorithms, medical instruments, water management and desalinization, agriculture, missile defense, robotic warfare, and UAVs. The successful integration into a globalized economy also testifies to the fact that Israel is not isolated in the international community – an issue discussed below.
Israel has the highest ratio of university degrees to the population in the world. Israel produces more scientific papers per capita than any other nation by a large margin, as well as one of the highest per capita rates of patents filed. Most important, 4.5 percent of its GDP goes to research and development, the highest proportion in the world.
Israel’s robust demography, a record high fertility rate in Western countries of three births per woman, provides a tailwind for its economy. Moreover, Israel’s government is developing programs for training better the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox sectors to increase their participation in Israel’s workforce. Additional qualified manpower is an important element in economic growth. Moreover, the natural gas findings in Israel’s economic zone in the Mediterranean allow Israel to enhance its economic viability and achieve energy independence.
Sustained economic growth requires responsible economic policies and ability to resist populist demands. So far, Israel’s political leaders have met this challenge, and there are signs that the political system has internalized the need to continue such policies.
Despite the remarkable economic progress, Israel’s 2016 GDP per capita is $37,292 (less than most Western countries), leaving room for further improvement. Nevertheless, Israel’s 2016 $318,7 billion economy is larger than all of its immediate neighbors combined, Moreover, Israel’s expanding economy can afford larger defense outlays to meet its national security challenges, and the resources to ensure continued R&D for winning future wars.
A Strong Society
People who portray Israel as a deeply-divided society – a society split into separate tribes – are mistaken. In fact, social cohesion in Israel is greater than ever before. Most of Israel’s social rifts have been bridged creating a stronger society. This is good news for the ability of Israeli society to withstand the inevitable tests of protracted conflict in the future.
Significantly, the acerbic ideological debate over the future of the territories acquired in 1967 is over. The Sinai that was traded for a peace treaty in 1979, the Golan Heights that was de facto annexed in 1981, and Gaza that was evacuated in 2005, are no longer bones of contention. Over two thirds of Israelis oppose any territorial concessions in the Golan Heights. The civil war in Syria has only solidified such positions.
Concerning Judea and Samaria, there is a great majority in favor of partition – which is the historical Zionist approach. But large majorities also insist on retaining the settlement blocs, holding Jerusalem (the Temple Mount in particular), and the Jordan Rift. The establishment of a Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994 amounts to another de facto partition, albeit a messy one. Skepticism over the state-building ability of the Palestinians is widespread, but very few Israelis advocate annexing the cities of the West Bank. Moreover, Israel built a security barrier in the West Bank in 2002, signaling determination to disengage from the main Palestinian population centers and marking a potential future border.
The current territorial debate is not couched in ideological reasoning, but in a pragmatic assessment of what is needed for Israel’s security and what is least costly in terms of domestic politics. The expectations of the mid-1990s for peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians have been replaced by a realistic consensus that peace is not around the corner. The Israeli public is largely reconciled to the idea that Israel will have to live by its sword for the foreseeable future, and most of the public is ready to pay the price of long-term struggle. Managing the conflict with the Palestinians has become the mainstream position in Israel, for lack of a better option.
Israelis reject the argument that the continuation of the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations inevitably constitutes a demographic dynamic leading to a bi-national state. Israel’s willingness to partition the territory, and the ability of the political system to disengage unilaterally from territory heavily populated by Arabs, nullifies the “demographic” argument. Just as Israel is not concerned by the numbers of babies born in Amman, Jordan, it is not overly concerned by the fertility rate of Arab woman in Nablus, in the West Bank either.
Israelis understand that, alas, they are locked into a long-term, tragic conflict with the Palestinians; and they have patience to wait for better times. Palestinian rejection of Israeli partition proposals (from Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2007) has strengthened the feeling of “ein breira” (there is no choice) – meaning the conflict must simply be managed. This consensus is an important asset in terms of Israel’s ability to fight future wars, if necessary. And thus, criticism of far Left in Israel and of foreign observers regarding Israeli West Bank policy can be dismissed. It hasn’t cracked the Israeli consensus.
Similarly, debates over Israel’s preferred economic regime have long disappeared. Nearly all Israelis agree that capitalism is the best way to create further wealth. Government policies along such lines are widely supported. The Likud, and primarily Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, advocated a market economy and have been in power for most of the last two decades.
Another long-simmering social rift, the Ashkenazi-Sephardic cleavage, is gradually attenuating. The number of “intermarriages” is on the rise, obfuscating ethnic differences. The past three decades have seen a dramatic increase in the proportion of university students of Sephardic origin, and a similar growth in the ranks of the senior officers of the IDF. Their numbers in municipal and national politics increased significantly.
The only rift within Israeli society which is still of great social, cultural, and political importance is the religious-secular divide. Despite efforts to mitigate the consequences of the growing estrangement of the secular sector from traditional values and Jewish culture, we are in the midst of a Kulturkampf.However, this situation does not differ greatly from the afflictions of identity politics faced by other Western societies.
Moreover, the conflict is not between two clearly defined camps. The number of those defining themselves as secular is diminishing (only 40 percent), while a growing number of Israelis identify themselves as traditionalists, in the middle of the orthodox-secular continuum. The proportion of the Orthodox in society is also growing. Precisely because there are Jews of different degrees of observance and knowledge, there is room for mediation and a modicum of understanding.
Not everything is perfect in the Israeli society and economy. There is some violence in the streets and in the schools; the education system has problems; the gap between rich and poor is too large; economic competition is insufficient; and housing prices are too high. Nevertheless, a Gallup poll of 2017 rates Israel eleventh in the world in terms of happiness. As well, over 90 percent of the Jews in Israel consistently are proud to be Israeli. Ascribing dissatisfaction and discord to Israeli society at large is simply wrong.
A Flourishing Democracy
Part of the frustrated Israeli Left argues that Israel’s democracy is in danger. The frustration stems from the fact that for more than two decades the Left has failed to garner support in the electoral arena for it policies. Yet Israel’s democracy is alive and well. It is far more vibrant and open than it was during the days of the Labor Party’s hegemony (1948-1977). The end of the hegemonic party era democratized Israel’s political system, allowing for new forces to appear on the political stage and for greater social mobility.
The erosion of socialist practices and privatization of a centralized economy contributed to the growth of a non-Ashkenazi middle class. Social mobility has also been enhanced by a greater access to higher learning. During the post-1977 period a large number of colleges of varying quality were opened and competed with the established universities for students and resources. Over time Israel has also seen slightly less influence of central power at the municipal level, allowing for the emergence of new foci of power and a new venue for leadership recruitment.
A pivotal component in any democracy is the judicial system. The ascendance of the Israeli Supreme Court to its current elevated status started after the decline of Labor. It was Prime Minister Menachem Begin who encouraged a more active role for the Supreme Court, and he was instrumental in the nomination of the interventionist Aharon Barak to the Supreme Court in 1978. The independence of the police and the judicial system in Israel has drastically increased in recent years. Israel’s judicial system fearlessly prosecuted a president, prime minister, and cabinet ministers, becoming the subject of envy in many democratic states. Attempts to curtail Supreme Court activism are under way by appointing more conservative judges. Redressing the balance among the government, Parliament and Supreme Court is part of a democratic process.
The media – the watchdog of democracy – was totally transformed after 1977. The mobilized written and electronic press disappeared. In their place a plethora of media outlets with different agendas emerged. Most of the written and electronic media, as well as the new social media, is free and fills its duties as the watching dog of the politicians. There is also greater sensitivity and corresponding legislature for equality among women and disadvantaged groups.
The IDF is a favorite address for criticism. It is accused of having disproportionate clout in the decision-making process and of breeding militarism in Israel’s society. Nothing is further from the truth. Labor convictions are no longer a necessary condition for being appointed to the position of chief-of-staff. The military actually became more representative of the demographic trends and the growing social mobility. Its ranks include new immigrants, Sephardi, and members of the national-religious camp, the latter making part of the Ashkenazi old elite feel uncomfortable.
After 1977, the military displayed more professionalism and has actually been more obedient in accepting the judgment of the elected political leadership in decision-making.The military was kept in the dark during the negotiations of the September 1993 Oslo Accords. It also recommended against the May 2000 unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon and the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. The three most important strategic decisions since 1993 were implemented despite lack of support from the IDF, proving that Israel does not have an army-dominated militaristic government.
While there is always room for improvement, Israeli democracy is thriving and fares better on most scores that in the past. Complaints from the Left about Israeli democracy is basically sour grapes, stemming from the fact that the wisdom of the Left has been rejected by the electorate.
The International Arena
Since Israel’s establishment, Arab countries have sought to isolate Israel and deny it international legitimacy. Yet a review of Israel’s contemporary interactions with the international community shows that Israel is not at all isolated. The international campaign to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel (BDS), initiated by the Palestinians, has failed to make a real dent on Israel’s diplomatic status and flourishing economy, and has only marginally affected its cultural life.
Vicious criticism of Israel, particularly at the morally bankrupt United Nations, has little practical effect on bilateral relations between Israel and most states. At the end of 2017, Israel had diplomatic relations with 158 states out of 193 UN members. Considering that most Arab states and additional Muslim countries do not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, Israel’s diplomatic network cannot be much wider.
The emergence of a victorious US at the end of the Cold War bode well for Israel, a valued American ally. Many important countries decided to improve relations with the Jewish state which was perceived as a good conduit to Washington and a strong state, militarily, economically and technologically. The year 1992 marked the establishment of ambassadorial relations by important states such as China, India, Turkey, and Nigeria.
Following its win in the 1991 Gulf War, the US convened the November 1991 Madrid conference, which marked greater Arab acceptance of Israel. The Arab League peace initiative (2002) and the Arab states’ presence at the Annapolis gathering (2007) indicate the continuation of this trend. While the rise of Islam in the region is problematic for Israel, Egypt and Jordan still cling to their peace treaties with Israel. Israel strengthened its informal dealings with Arab states in the Gulf and in the Maghreb. Israel conducts extensive, if quiet, trade relations with the Arab world, nullifying much of the Arab economic boycott’s impact. Moreover, the ascendance of Iran in Middle East politics and its nuclear threat makes Israel a potential ally of the moderate Sunni Arab states.
Significantly, relations with the Muslim world have improved as Israel has established cordial relations with Muslim states that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet empire in the Caucasus and Central Asia, such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The Muslim identity of their populations hardly hinders relations with Jerusalem in areas important to their national interests.
The ups and mostly downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations have a little impact of how states conduct their bilateral relations with Israel. Actually, the failures of the Palestinian national movement and the ascent of Hamas in Palestinian politics have elicited greater understanding for the Israeli predicament. The 9/11 attacks and the rise of the Islamic State organization further sensitized much of the world to Israel’s dilemmas in fighting Palestinian terrorism. Moreover, the challenge of terrorism and radical Islam have pushed many states to seek cooperation with Israel in counter-terrorism.
The two most populous and dynamic states on the world scene – India and China, rising global powers – evince a high level of friendship for Israel. Both are old civilizations that have not been burdened by anti-Semitic baggage. They treat the Jewish State with reverence, seeing in Israel an old civilization that has reached remarkable achievements. Israel also has been very successful in forging a strategic partnership with India.
Finally, Israel’s ties with the most important country in the world, the US, have greatly improved since 1973. The increasingly institutionalized strategic relationship is very strong. The US will continue to be the leading global power for some time to come, which is good for its small ally Israel.
It is noteworthy that the level of the American public support for Israel has remained remarkably stable over the past four decades, at around 65 percent. This also translates into congressional support, and it stands independent of any Jewish lobby. Even Israel’s use of force, which is criticized in many parts of the world, is well accepted and seen similar to the American way of war.
The events of the “Arab Spring” also have strengthened Israel’s status as a stable and reliable ally in a region fraught with uncertainty. The Netanyahu government survived with relatively little damage from President Barack Obama presidency and has lived to see President Donald Trump move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Hopefully, this move will be emulated by other states, lending even greater international legitimacy to Israel.
Despite that not everything is perfect in the Holy Land, Israel’s time vector seems to be positive. Israel is a prosperous and vibrant democracy that maintains strong internal social cohesion. In parallel, Israel’s international status has improved, and support for Israel in the US, its main ally and the main hegemonic power in international affairs, remains very high. Moreover, the Jewish state is widely recognized as an entrenched reality even by Arab and Muslim states. Israel has built a mighty military machine that can parry all regional threats. The IDF remains the most capable military in the region, with the motivation, equipment, and training to overcome the capabilities of any regional challenger. Only, a nuclear Iran would be a negative game changer in the strategic equation, and everything should be done to prevent this development.
Discontinuities in Israel’s political, social, and economic fortunes are unlikely. This means that time is on Israel’s side. The zeitgeist of this epoch, which stresses democracy and free market values, also favors Israel – as opposed to its Muslim opponents. They remain in great socioeconomic and political crisis.
At 70, Israel is a great success story. If it continues prudent domestic and foreign policies and remains successful in transmitting a Zionist ethos to future generations, its future looks bright. While peace with all Israel’s neighbors is desirable, that eventuality is not a necessary condition for Israel’s survival or prosperity in the medium- to long-term.
 Efraim Inbar, ““Israel’s National Security Amidst Unrest in the Arab World,” Washington Quarterly, 35 (Summer 2012).
 Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle (New York: Twelve, 2009).
 Nissim Leon, “Secular Jews: From Proactive Agents to Defensive Players,” Israel Studies Review, January 2012, pp. 22-26.
 Stuart A. Cohen, “Changing Civil-Military Relations in Israel: Towards an Over-Subordinate IDF,” in Efraim Inbar, ed., Israel’s Strategic Agenda (New York: Routledge, 2007), pp. 156-66.
 Walter Russell Mead, “America, Gaza, Israel, the World,” The American Interest, November 18, 2012. http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2012/11/18/america-israel-gaza-the-world/.